Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 1, 2017
Matthew 2:13-23 Commentary
There’s nothing like kicking off a new year with a story about slaughtered babies . . . But there it is. New Year’s Day 2017 falls on a Sunday, and if bleary-eyed people who stayed up for champagne and the Times Square ball-drop manage to get to church the following morning—it’s really the same morning—and if their pastor follows the Gospel Lectionary, then they will get jolted by a story about dead babies. Happy New Year!
But wait, wasn’t it just Christmas seven days ago? Didn’t we all just get to visit the manger again, sing all those wonderful carols, feel aglow in the wash of twinkling lights and glimpses of angels fluttering overhead? But now Matthew, fresh off his exceedingly short birth narrative in chapter 1 and then the Magi story at the head of this second chapter, gives us THIS story? Clearly the Gospel writers were not nearly sentimental enough. It’s still “the holidays” after all and we’re not quite ready to let down from all the good times and Normal Rockwell-like dinners and all the Currier & Ives moments by the hearth.
Yet there it is: the neck of the woods that first welcomed God’s own Son, Jesus, was rocked some while after his birth by the deaths of many infants who were about the same age as Jesus, give or take a few months. Matthew 1 told us that this little one would be Immanuel, God with us. But God no sooner arrives “with us” and the worlds of many families get turned upside down through the tragic, brutal murder of toddlers and infants who had done nothing wrong but who very much found themselves in the wrong place and at a profoundly wrong time.
It was Herod who went crazy, of course, and of course that stands to reason as Herod was crazy just generally. To put it mildly, the Magi had most definitely set a spark to a very bad powder keg. “You’d be better off as one of Herod’s pigs as one of his sons” the Caesar himself is said to have once remarked after hearing that the paranoid man on the throne had wiped out yet another heir apparent whom Herod regarded as being altogether too eager to take his father’s place on the throne. Herod definitely was one of those nutty loons who fancied he might just live forever—he didn’t—and so would brook no rival to his position.
A ”king of the Jews” was out there somewhere, the astrologers from Baghdad had told Herod. Who knows where these pagans got their theology from but weird and discredited though their pseudo-science was, they got that much right. Alas, they had no GPS to help them on the final leg of their journey and so they stopped off at the palace for some help. Surely the palace would have some experts who could lend a hand to help them find the king. It’s not clear how much actual help they got—it was again the star that re-appeared and led them the rest of the way to Jesus—but first they had tipped off the wrong man.
Fans of the Star Wars films may remember from a year ago when the new film came out that the dark character of Kylo Ren twice in the movie threw a meltdown hissy fit after something did not go his way. He activated his light saber and–even as he screamed “Noooo, Nooooo, Noooo” over and over–he used his laser sword to slash through walls and computer consoles, causing all around him to scatter. I imagine this was Herod after hearing a new king has been born.
And so it was that after having just punched a few holes in a wall and after having kicked the cat clear across the room, Herod managed to smooth back his hair, wipe the furious sweat off his brow, straighten up his royal robes, and re-appear before the Magi with the hollow words, “Well, good luck to you, gentlemen, and once you find the king you’re looking for . . . um, er, let me know where he is. I have a little something for him myself. Can’t wait to give it to the little fellow . . .”
God was several moves ahead of Herod and so the Magi are tipped off to scurry back to Baghdad by another way. Once Herod figures out he’d been out-foxed, he kicks a few more walls and throws another hissy fit before issuing a dark decree: kill all the babies in this area of a certain age and with luck, we’ll take out this wannabe king while we’re at it.
“The first martyrs” they have been called, those babies who were run through with Herod’s bloody spears. The title doesn’t really fit since a martyr is literally a “witness” who dies on account of not recanting his or her witness to the reality of Jesus as God and Lord. The babies in question—and their parents for that matter—had in fact never heard of Jesus, had no faith to profess or recant. All they could do is suffer a cruel fate for reasons many of those parents may never have come remotely close to figuring out.
Why? Why must the world react to the advent of the Christ with violence? Then again, why not? Let’s admit that this is a horrible story. But let’s acknowledge that every day the news is filled with the same thing. Oh, maybe not in direct response to Jesus or the Gospel but the children of Aleppo have been dying for a long time now. So have children in and around Bethlehem; in Juba, South Sudan; in Darfur; in . . . well, you fill in the blank. It’s not difficult to do.
If a preacher is brave enough to use this text on New Year’s morning 2017, it will not be difficult to look back on the year 2016 just gone by and see it as another bloody year of travail, murder, suffering, sorrow. This part of Matthew 2 is not the exception to the rule in this fallen, broken world. It is the rule. The fact is that Jesus and his parents barely escaped with their lives, and the Christmas story cannot really be told in all its brutal fullness without acknowledging that even the very salvation of this world could not come without being surrounded by the very mayhem and evil that Jesus came to fix.
But if you cannot or will not do that—if you insist that the advent of God’s Messiah stay ensconced in a pretty and twinkly narrative of all sweetness and light—then you are missing the real punch of the narrative, not just of the Christmas story but of God’s wider story that gets narrated from Genesis 1 through to Revelation 22. It’s a brutal world God came to save. It’s a world a holy God would have had every right to turn his back on—as he nearly did once in a time of a great flood—but God stuck with the world anyway. He made a promise to save. God knew it would not be easy. Not by a long shot. God knew that it would never work to wait for his creatures to get their acts together and meet him halfway, or a quarter of the way, or a tenth of the way, or a micro-fraction of the way. God was going to have to do this bloody work himself and the Slaughter of the Innocents is proof positive of both the long odds God faced and at the same time the very reason the work had to be done by God’s Son in the first place.
A popular John Lennon song that often gets played around this time of the year has as its refrain “A very merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year. Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear.” But who are we kidding? The new year will have plenty of fear even as the old year did. We can wish it were not so and maybe New Year’s Day is the day for optimism but . . . it may also be as good a day as any for some Gospel realism, Matthew-style.
The Good News that emerges from the Horrible News is that even as Herod’s evil did not undo God’s plan or wipe out God’s Christ, so God is still marching on toward that day when a child will lead them and when God will declare “Behold, I make all things new.” We cannot do that. God can. God will.
In the Preaching Connections part of this website, Roy Anker highlights the excellent film The Innocents. The title of the movie is clearly designed to evoke Matthew 2. The story is set in post-World War II Poland in a convent that has experienced grave evil. Invading Russian soldiers had repeatedly raped the hapless nuns in the convent, resulting nine months later in one pregnancy after the next by women who had sworn themselves to chastity. The Mother Superior of the convent tries to help but, in fact, makes matters much, much worse and inadvertently perpetuates the bad momentum of the evil done to them.
Yet through a series of events and people—heroes both likely and very unlikely—the kingdom of God bursts through in the end. Like Matthew 2, so also here: God is not undone by the evil that threatens our lives. If we cannot possibly explain why such horrid things happen to innocent people and babies, we can at least rejoice that God is not evacuated from the scene due to human evil. In Christ, there will be healing. In that is all the hope of the Gospel.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!